BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — A woman in Western New York is taking inspiration to new heights. Her name is Bekki Hunter, and she is Mercy Flight’s first-ever female pilot in command.
The civilian-trained pilot from Cleveland started flying in 2007. After finishing her training in Idaho, the wide-open skies have taken Hunter everywhere from California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Utah, all the way to Kauai’s lush, green mountains and waterfalls.
“Prior to being here, I was actually flying tours in Hawaii,” Hunter said. “It’s a magical feeling. The view is phenomenal… It makes everything that much more beautiful, being up in the air.”
Hunter wasn’t always up in the clouds. Years ago, she worked a desk job at the Grand Canyon. Her passion for flying was inspired by her roommate, who worked as a wildland firefighter on a helitack crew.
“She moved from the Grand Canyon to Utah and I went to Los Angeles,” Hunter said. “I would go visit her on long weekends and I would visit the helitack crew and they all looked like they were having fun, they were enjoying their jobs. My job was sitting at a desk, their’s looked a little cooler. So I took a discovery flight and I fell in love with it. I thought, ‘Boy, if I can get the funding to do this, I’m gonna go do this.'”
Hunter took to the skies. It wasn’t until this summer that she traded the mountains and waterfalls for emergency medical care. Flying took on a new purpose.
“When you’re in a helicopter, it’s either probably the worst day of your life if you’re in an EMS helicopter, or it’s probably the best day of your life if you’re having a tour,” Hunter said. “I’ve been fortunate to be on both sides of that, and there are some really rewarding things that go on both sides of those experiences.”
At Mercy Flight, those experiences are life-saving. More than 30,000 patient missions have been completed across New York over 40 years.
“We have the ability to help patients when they can’t have all of the help that they need — whether it be from insurance, lack of insurance, underinsurance — and we get the opportunity to actually help them and assist them,” Hunter said. “That’s part of what this program, the BASH, is about — being able to provide some funds and help them because we are a nonprofit. So that’s kind of what makes this company so special.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilot in command is “directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft.” So not only is Hunter playing a critical role in helping save lives, but she’s also breaking barriers in a male-dominated field. She doesn’t take that lightly. For Hunter, it’s both an honor and a privilege.
“Being here and flying at this company is pretty unique. Our Margie, our CEO, was also the first female paramedic here at the company,” Hunter said. “To see her progress through the company and become where she is, that just kind of gives me some hope for all of the companies that are out there, and they can see that this can be done.”
Hunter may no longer be in Hawaii, but she didn’t leave the tours behind. She co-owns a helicopter company in Seneca Falls with her partner, where they provide flights over the Finger Lakes.
“We live in this wonderful area and everybody thinks it’s very, very pretty,” Hunter said. “But once you actually get up in the air and you can see it from a different vantage point, it is so amazing.”
Hunter is proof that the sky isn’t the limit, it’s beyond.
“All I can hope is that some other little girl or young woman out there sees that this is doable, and ignites a little spark in them and gets them to say, ‘Hey, I can do this, too,'” Hunter said. “You can do anything that you set your mind to. The world is out there and open. Find the people that will help you and support you, and make your path. You can do it. Keep working at it until you get what you want.”
Hunter emphasized she’s only one part of the bigger picture. It’s the true team effort between the pilots, nurses and medics that makes Mercy Flight’s life-saving mission possible.
“I’m really, really pleased that Mercy Flight has given me this opportunity to do this,” Hunter said. “But it doesn’t happen with just me. It takes all the other people. I can’t do any of this without my wonderful crews.”
The crews’ life-saving service and dedication will be celebrated at the annual BASH for Mercy Flight. The “party with a purpose” will have food, drinks, a silent auction and fireworks. There will also be performances by Nerds Gone Wild and DJ Milk. It’s happening on Saturday, Sept. 23 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Buffalo RiverWorks. Tickets can be purchased here.